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    Restaurant Employee Paychecks Fund Campaigns
    by Jack Dolan
    CFIC Staff

    Why would a kitchen worker at Outback Steakhouse who has never voted in his life, who told Mother Jones point blank Im not into politics, make twenty-seven campaign contributions in a single year?

    For Devin Nelson the answer is he agreed to let the Outback Employees PAC deduct money from his paychecks. And why would an employee who has no interest in politics agree to such a deal? Andrew Fitzgerald, a kitchen manager whose paycheck is also docked by the Outback Employees PAC, told Mother Jones, Lets face it, when the big boss asks you to do something and not doing it may hinder reaching your ultimate goal youre going to do it.

    Andrew and Devin are in the minority of Outback Employees PAC contributors contacted by Mother Jones. Two thirds said they didnt mind giving to the PAC. But the other third, who said they didnt care much about national or state politics, suggested they felt pressured by corporate politics into signing the agreements. I just did it because they said I should, Seth Kaplan a former Outback manager told Mother Jones. They kind of implied you had to do it. They said everyone does it and let you know how much you contributed compared to others.

    Outback employees arent the only ones having their paychecks docked. Campaign finance data from Florida and Ohio show tens of thousands of union members and employees of companies with employee PACs whose paychecks are docked regularly to fund political war chests. Finding paycheck dockers in campaign finance data can range from ridiculously simple to nearly impossible. In Ohio, for example, the transactions are actually coded as payroll deductions. But the Federal Election Commission doesnt itemize contributions until the contributor gives more than $200, so small contributions wont show up. Florida, however, itemizes all contributions no matter how small, so the hunting is pretty good.

    The first thing most reporters do when they get a database of campaign contributions is sort by amount, so the biggest show up on top. Its a good way to find the real political powers. Its also a good way to see if the elections board performs even the most rudimentary enforcement of contribution limits. (If someone exceeds the limit with a single check and nobody notices, you have an instant story.) But if you are looking for the average Joe whose paycheck is being hit, reverse the query so the lowest amounts come up on top. Then look for contributors who give very small amounts, regularly.

    I was slumming in the Florida Board of Elections contributions data when I first noticed such bizarre amounts, like $3.37. I wondered why anyone would write out a check for Three Dollars and Thirty Seven cents? So I did a query to show all of the records with that amount and was amazed to find the same guy writing the same check every two weeks.

    I checked the hundreds of other odd amounts, like $6.51, and found much the same thing. Most of the contributions were made every two weeks by the same few people. Most of the money was going either to corporate political action committees like the Outback Employees PAC or the AETNA Employees PAC, or unions like the Dade County Professional Fire Fighters Association or the State of Florida Teachers PAC.

    Before long I had a list of names and addresses of people whose paychecks were almost certainly being docked by their company or union. The database also showed exactly how much each PAC raised, where the money went, and what proportion came from each employee. I thought it might be more information than anyone else had bothered to share with the employees and figured it could lead to some interesting quotes. Aaron Rothenburger and Jennifer Liberto made those calls, hundreds of them, and wrote the story, Rough Cuts for the November/December issue of Mother Jones. You can read the story at http://bsd.mojones.com/mother_jones/ND98/roughcuts.html.

    Jack Dolan can be reached at (573)884-1802 or by e-mail at jack@nicar.org.